Six reviews for this week:

Fiction

thebees
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Cover design by Steve Attardo; cover artwork from The Young Landsman (1845), photographed by Matthias Trentsensky

The Bees written by Laline Paull, read by Orlagh Cassidy (HarperCollins)

May 2014; 10 hours. What a fascinating story—the bees are slightly anthropomorphized, but they remain at their core more bee than human. The worldbuilding is fantastic and intricate; Paull takes the small space of a hive and expands it into the vast, interconnected society that it is. Flora 717’s character develops organically through the story; she defies so many expectations of her and learns so much through the novel, not only in terms of knowledge about bee society, but also an understanding of herself. Orlagh Cassidy’s narration was phenomenal; Cassidy’s voice work brought every character to life and lent so much personality to even the most minor of characters. I haven’t read the print version, so I don’t know if reading the book offers as vivid of an experience, but the audiobook was an immersive adventure that I adored.

The Girl in the Road cover
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Cover photo by Eduardo Jose Bernardino; cover design by Christopher Brand

The Girl in the Road written by Monica Byrne, read by Dioni Collins & Nazneen Contractor (Crown [print], Penguin Random House)

May 2014; 323 pages; 11 hours. I started listening to the audiobook version on my Thanksgiving roadtrip but switched to the text version after I got home. From what I heard of the audiobook version, the narration was wonderful; Meena’s voice in particular came through well. There’s so much packed into this novel—Meena and Mariama transverse so many places, both geographically and in time, and their stories intertwine in unexpected ways. Threads of intergenerational trauma weave throughout the work. Metaphors literalize themselves and tie in with both Meena and Mariama’s unreliable narration. The world is wide and fascinating; I felt each character’s motivations strongly and found myself compelled to read on.

I did find myself upset with the treatment of Mohini, a trans woman of color, in the narrative and voiced my concerns on Twitter; Byrne responded graciously to my comments.

z-smashwordscoverrev
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Cover art by Likhain

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (Buku Fixi)

October 2014; 290 pages (print, ebook is longer). Oh my goodness, what a fantastic collection of stories. Cho is amazing at developing character and writing each character with a unique voice; every character was memorable in some way. Malaysia is a common background among all the stories; Cho uses Manglish liberally, which I thought was wonderful—I found that I have a way easier time reading Manglish dialogue than the Victorian/Edwardian-esque dialogue and narration that features in some of Cho’s other work, like Sorcerer to the Crown. Cho’s pacing is perfect. My favorite stories—The House of Aunts, The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life, and Balik Kampung—rely on revealing the right amount of information at precisely the right time. Cho never missed a beat. I’m so glad I bought this collection; I’m pretty sure I devoured it over the course of only a couple days.

Stabbed in the Neck by Dot Cotton by Daniel Carpenter (Unsung Stories)

November 2015; 2,700 words. Short stories rarely feature ensemble casts because there’s little space to develop the characters properly. Stabbed in the Neck by Dot Cotton, meanwhile, was fascinating to me because of the techniques Carpenter used to tie so many characters together. The building, not the people, is the main focus, allowing all these characters to be tied together within the same confines. Carpenter’s technique of panning through various settings and delineating them via location headings works well with the building’s omniscience. More of a concept story than one I’d read for plot or character, but the concept worked well for me.

Cover for Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron
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Cover design by Staven Andersen

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again by A.C. Wise (Lethe Press)

2015; 272 pages. What I love the most about this collection is that every story has a happy ending. But that doesn’t mean the endings are simple—many stories made me well up not with sadness, but with the fullness of emotion and satisfaction that I felt at each conclusion. A.C. Wise has a gift for pacing, beats, and crafting endings that make stories feel complete.

I mentioned on Twitter that The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is the TV show I never knew I wanted, but that’s not quite accurate—TV shows rarely have the opportunity to delve so deeply into ensemble characters’ backgrounds. This collection, however, does just that. Wise develops each character into a fleshed-out person who feels real; bracketing the collection with full-ensemble stories was an excellent choice that provided both a great launching point and a nice place to return to to wrap everything up nicely. (Even the collection as a whole has a great ending! See what I mean about Wise’s skill at structure?)

I do wish we had learned more about M, though. While it’s congruent with their personality, M was very much a background character who seemed to be more set decoration than a fully formed character. I might’ve excused it if the collection were structured differently, but with such in-depth explorations of other characters’ backstories, it felt like a gap that M’s was glossed over. Even if a character is private, the author often still knows their backstory, so introducing that wouldn’t have felt out-of-place to me. Potential material for Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron 2, perhaps? 😉

Nonfiction

Strange Horizons Book Club: The Girl in the Road by Gautam Bhatia, Vajra Chandrasekera, Chinelo Onwualu, and Aishwarya Subramanian (Strange Horizons)

November 2015; 6,700 words. This roundtable offers additional thoughts on The Girl in the Road; reading it, I found many of my own feelings echoed in the discussion. Excellent discussion with lots to think about; I voiced additional responses on Twitter.